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Active Outdoors

Active Outdoors: What are sliding snowshoes?

  • Karver Krash: Turns out that trying run through deep, untracked snow on sliding snowshoes may not be the best way go. Note the gray climbing skins permanently inset into the red ski base, (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

    Karver Krash: Turns out that trying run through deep, untracked snow on sliding snowshoes may not be the best way go. Note the gray climbing skins permanently inset into the red ski base, (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • Sliding Downhill: Sliding snowshoes left you walk up a hill like you would on snowshoes, then slide down like you would on skis—they are slower and safer going downhill than skis, but still loads of fun.(Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

    Sliding Downhill: Sliding snowshoes left you walk up a hill like you would on snowshoes, then slide down like you would on skis—they are slower and safer going downhill than skis, but still loads of fun.(Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • Sliding Uphill: The Altai “Hok” sliding snowshoes have climbing skins permanently attached to the bottom  so you can glide up hills without slipping backwards. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

    Sliding Uphill: The Altai “Hok” sliding snowshoes have climbing skins permanently attached to the bottom so you can glide up hills without slipping backwards. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • Trying Tele: In deep, fresh snow we were able to make some Tele-style turns coming down a slopes, but the skins on the bases controlled our speed..  (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

    Trying Tele: In deep, fresh snow we were able to make some Tele-style turns coming down a slopes, but the skins on the bases controlled our speed.. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • Karver Krash: Turns out that trying run through deep, untracked snow on sliding snowshoes may not be the best way go. Note the gray climbing skins permanently inset into the red ski base, (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
  • Sliding Downhill: Sliding snowshoes left you walk up a hill like you would on snowshoes, then slide down like you would on skis—they are slower and safer going downhill than skis, but still loads of fun.(Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
  • Sliding Uphill: The Altai “Hok” sliding snowshoes have climbing skins permanently attached to the bottom  so you can glide up hills without slipping backwards. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
  • Trying Tele: In deep, fresh snow we were able to make some Tele-style turns coming down a slopes, but the skins on the bases controlled our speed..  (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

Imagine you are playing the TV game show Jeopardy and this answer came up: “Pure, silly fun and great exercise in the snow.” Your question would be: “What are sliding snowshoes?”

Sliding snowshoes bridge the gap between snowshoes, which can go almost anywhere in winter one plodding step at a time, and skis, which are faster but require more skill to use. Some people have called them “a solution looking for a problem.” I call them another great excuse for having fun outdoors.

When the “Blizzard of ’13” (let’s hope it’s not the only blizzard of ’13!) dropped 32 inches of snow, my son, Justin, and I grabbed three pairs of sliding snowshoes and headed out to play. Justin took my trusty old “Karhu Karvers,” which I’ve had since the early ’90’s.

I had two new pairs of sliding snowshoes I wanted to test. Unlike the Karvers, these are still being manufactured and can be purchased easily online. The “Hok,” from the Altai Ski Company (altaiskis.com), are very lightweight, 120 centimeters long and have metal edges and inset climbing skins on the base. It’s clear these are an evolutionary step from the Karhu originals.

The others are Marquette Backcountry Skis (marquette-backcountry.

com). They are heavy, made of indestructible injection-molded reinforced plastic with fishscale bases. They are 140 centimeters long, 130 millimeters wide and have a tip that curves up like a water ski. I got these late in the winter of 2010-11, used them on spring corn snow and had been waiting ever since to try them in deep snow. Unlike the Karvers and the Hoks, they don’t have metal edges, so hard snow is simply not an option.

With sliding snowshoes, you don’t need to spend money on a lift ticket. All you need is snow. We headed for a local patch of woods that’s popular with cross-country skiers and snowshoers and headed out. At first we followed a trail broken by snowshoers, and started out just kicking and gliding along as if we were on cross-country skis. Easy-peasy. Big smiles.

A short while later, we popped out into a slanted field, left the packed trail and started to explore. Justin decided to see how fast he could run through the deep snow. Pretty quickly, he tangled his tips and tumbled. I laughed; so did he. As long as you paid attention, though, you could move right along, and we took turns breaking trail. Though my Altais were shorter than the Karvers, they are also a little wider and seemed to float just as well and turn slightly more easily. I was impressed.

After an hour or so of playing on trail and off, we switched to another location where an old logging road climbs a short, steep hill. I switched to the Marquettes and tried to follow Justin up the hill, but the fishscale bases didn’t stick as well on the steeps. So I had to break trail to keep from sliding backwards. Coming back down, however, the Marquettes floated magnificently on the deep fluff and I was able to carve sinuous S turns almost effortlessly. I wish that hill had gone on forever.

Now, admittedly, snowshoes would have gotten us everywhere we wanted to go on this day – step by slow step. And real backcountry skis would have, too, and we’d probably have had even more fun on the downhills. But the lightweight “sliding snowshoes” climbed the hills more easily than either skis or snowshoes, and were a hoot coming down.

Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Okay, so what are they?

First, imagine a very short, very light, very wide ski designed for easy maneuverability and lots of flotation in soft snow. Add a little sidecut and steel edges. On the base it will have either fishscales (like a typical waxless cross-country ski) or permanently attached climbing “skins” (a directional synthetic hair that allows the ski to slide forward but grips and stops the ski if it starts to slide backward). Again, the goal is to split the difference between plodding along on snowshoes, and gliding along on skis.

Based on early testing, it looks to me like the Altai Hok is going to redefine the category and become the standard by which all other sliding snowshoes are judged. I had originally received this pair for testing, but I’m going to have to buy them.

The Marquette Backcounty is fun and less expensive but more limited. It doesn’t climb nearly as well as the Altais or Karvers and was much heavier. But if you’ve got a slanted field anywhere near your house, and a pair of old 3-pin bindings and boots, these things are a hoot going downhill in deep snow.

If you’d like to read reviews of all sliding snowshoes, go to easternslopes.com and search “meta skis.” The Altai’s aren’t there yet but they will be soon.

Binding basics

Most sliding snowshoes are pre-drilled for a variety of binding options. Both the Altai Hoks and Marquette Backcountry can easily accept a heavy-duty 3-pin cross-country ski binding or a “BC” Nordic binding, both of which require special boots, or “universal” bindings, which work with almost any winter boot. Which you’d choose to use would probably depend on what boots you already have.

I’ve now tried them with every type of boot imaginable and, basically, the softer the boot, the less control you have going downhill or edging on sidehills. For the rolling terrain where I use them, I find you definitely get the best balance of comfort and control with 3-pin bindings and either beefy backcountry ski or Telemark boots, or universal bindings with either stiffer mountaineering/heavy backpacking boots or AT ski boots.

I used the Altais with their universal binding and my Lowa Mountain Expert mountaineering boots and was mightily impressed. I had all the control I needed on downhills, yet the combination was light enough for easy climbing (with the skins, these things climb almost effortlessly).

I skied the Marquettes with 3-pin bindings and Fischer BC boots that are just a little too big for me. Even with a little slop in the boot, I still had plenty of control in deep powder. Fun!

(Tim Jones can be reached at timjones@easternslopes.com.)

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